A strong student association can make administrators pay attention to student needs. Whether organising forums for students to share their thoughts, surveying the student body on administrative plans, or sitting at the table when decisions are being made, student government is vital to making sure students are getting what they pay for—and that they don’t have to sell their kidney on the black market to afford a degree!
Universities are rigidly structured, top-down, which sometimes means students are left out of the room. But it is the job of student government to get into that process. As the elected representatives of the students, they get access to folks that most students never get to see. Tony Funchess, Multicultural Affairs Director for Portland State University’s student government, explained how his values connect with his work, and how his position can make him a more effective advocate. “ I believe in the work of supporting students, advocating for students, being a voice for students… I believe that my student government position pulls my activism into the institution, where I am then afforded the opportunity to speak truth to powers that often don’t hear them: presidents, vice-presidents, provosts, department heads.”
You can’t always get what you want… but it can’t hurt to ask
Student government is a good mechanism for gathering student input and presenting it to the movers and shakers, and for keeping tabs on what the average student doesn’t get to see through all the red tape.
I asked recently-elected Oregon State Representative Rob Nosse about his experience in student government at Miami University, and affecting change on behalf of students. “I learned a lot about advocacy, and understanding of bureaucracy, and how a university—or any body—makes a decision… In a lot of universities, it really is a vehicle for student input in how things run. If you wanna change something at the university, it’s probably one of the best vehicles to make that happen.”
Student government is a chance for anyone attending the university to impact how things work. Recently, the university system in Oregon was disbanded, and universities were allowed to create their own governing boards, many of which initially did not include student seats. Member schools of the Oregon Student Association (OSA) successfully lobbied for student representation on these boards, so that students couldn’t be left out of decisions being made about things like tuition-setting.
Turn down for what?
Part of students’ success in getting representation on those boards was by having student constituents of legislators meet with them. In fact, one of the most important parts of student government work is registering students to vote, educating them on the issues, and helping them turn out in the spring and fall. When students turn up at the polls, legislators notice.
“The thing that I enjoyed the most was doing voter registration, and making sure that people on my campus had the ability to elect people to local school boards, and vote on bond measures, and president and state representative, because all those were policy-makers that were making decisions that were affecting the university, and affecting students and their faculty,” Rep. Nosse told me.
Voter registration is a tool for building student power, and it pays off—especially during budget season, when governors and legislators are deciding how much to spend on higher education for the next year. “I was attracted to stay in student government once I learned the impact of student advocacy, and organising,” says former PSU student body President Tiffany Dollar. “Seeing affected communities organise and advocate for themselves really moved me.”
You know you better work
Another great thing about student government is the experience looks great on a resume, and students get the chance to build connections that can really help get jobs later on. Plus, many schools offer tuition discounts or stipends to students involved in governing, and every little bit helps, right?
Being involved in the various campaigns being run, and attending board meetings and conferences also leads to a lot of skill-building and leadership development. Dollar told me about what skills and experiences stuck out from being in student government: “Through my work with OSA, I also gained important skills in communications, public speaking, and writing.” However, Dollar said, “the most valuable thing I gained was the network of passionate leaders and decision-makers I met during my work as a student.”
“You don’t have to necessarily be involved in student government because you’re interested in politics,” said Rep. Nosse, “you can just be involved because either you wanna meet like-minded people who care about the quality of their education or university, or want to plan things that make university life fun or interesting. It doesn’t have to be about politics, it can just be social and doing something that you care about, and it might lead to something that could help you in a career or a job down the road; you just don’t know.”
Can’t stop, won’t stop
Marginalised communities are often disenfranchised in higher education, and student government is a great way for students from those communities to have a say, and for all students to be in solidarity with each other in boosting the voices of those most often ignored.
“For me, the college experience is much more than the textbook and the classroom,” Funchess said. “I believe it is much more the engagement with other students. I think it is a world-class education when you’re engaging diverse populations, not just culturally, but socio-economically and demographically… I don’t think that we are intentional enough about what our mission is in serving that diverse population when we don’t have practices, programs, and policies in place that affirm those identities.”
Dollar agreed. “As a low-income, first generation, non-traditional student I knew getting through college was going to be very difficult. The odds are stacked against these students, and they have a much lower success rate in school.”
Student government provides students a platform for asserting their rights in the university. Through all of the hard work these students do, the university becomes a more accessible space for everyone. Young people are passionate and driven, and we know what we want: a quality, affordable education. Student government is one way we can get it.
“When you are in communal spaces, speak your truth,” Funchess reminded me. “Do not let your voice be silenced.” Student government is your voice on campus: use it.